Several of the posts in the last few weeks have touched upon a writer’s rollercoaster career and dealing with the emotions involved. It brought to mind something specific I wanted to discuss today — our self-worth and the measure of success.
In the US, our capitalist economic system has engrained itself into almost all of our culture, including what defines success. This is true in many other nations of the world, too, but I can only speak from the experience of being born, raised, and living in the US. And what defines success here is (no surprise) money. We measure ourselves by how much money we have.
That may seem obvious but it is amazing when you think of all the subtle ways that concept pervades our culture (which makes me think that this can also double as a world-building post). For example, it is considered rude to ask co-workers how much money they make. What if they make more or less than you for doing the same job? What does that say about your standing or theirs? Gratuity for jobs like waiters or taxi drivers or bellhops is supposed to be given based on merit — the better job they do serving you the more money you leave them. Of course, that has changed into an expected percentage, but the original concept was more merit driven. And on the other end of the scale, ostentatious displays of wealth equal displays of power.
This thinking also has become part of our artistic culture as well. We publicly measure the success of art — books, movies, music, paintings, etc — by the amount of money that work garners. The New York Times Bestseller list is just that — a list of what books have sold the most. It says nothing about the quality of those books, but we instantly assume on a gut level that if it’s a big seller, it must be worth reading (even when we can intellectually know that’s not true). Movie box-office receipts are the most important gauge of a movie, and having the #1 song merely means it is outselling everyone else.
But in a business like writing, where the majority can’t make enough money to write full-time, how are we supposed to define ourselves? If we define a writer’s success in financial terms, then the majority of us are doomed to failure. Even many well-known names don’t make a whole lot, so what’s a little guy to do?
Well, the easy answer, like most easy answers, is not so easy. You have to learn to redefine success. It sounds simple, and you may be thinking “Oh, of course, that’s obvious. Success for me is just getting published. See, problem solved.” The trouble is that most of us who think that are lying to ourselves. Deep down we want to sell big. We can’t help it. It’s been knocked into our heads from the day we were born. It’s the true, secret reason we all want to be published by a traditional, big house publisher. Small press is great but it means less financial resources and less bottom line money coming to us, thus less prestige — in other words, less success. And of self-publishing — let me put it this way. If the majority of self-published authors made as little as fifteen thousand dollars a year or more off of writing, nobody would look down on them. Yes, we can talk about art and quality and all kinds of things, but deep in our bones, where our brains can’t think with reason, it comes down to money.
But it doesn’t have to. It may take a long time, but each of us is capable of re-programming our definitions of success. Facebook is proof. Yes, Facebook. In Facebook culture, there is a definite measure of worth — Friends. The more Friends, the more successful you are in that culture. In the Facebook business world, we have Likes (as in, hey I have finally started a Stuart Jaffe Facebook Fan Page, so go ahead and Like me!). Twitter and Blogs have Followers. As a culture, we have re-defined a small segment of our lives to not measure success via money.
We can do the same in our writing life. We have to. If we don’t, we can’t survive as writers. I’ll try it now. For me, I want to make a steady living as a writer, in that my books are enjoyed enough that I can keep doing the job. See that — I just defined my success in financial terms again. It’s hard if you’re going to be honest. I’d love to say success as a writer means creating a wonderful story that people can enjoy — but that’s not honest. I want that story, yes, but I want it traditionally published, too. And I do want to make a living doing this. Like I said, not so easy.
But we still must try because ultimately, the numbers are against us. Most of us will not sustain a financially lucrative writing career. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t find success as a writer. We just need to rethink what that means. We need to find a better way to measure our art and thus our self-worth than simply money. I wish I could conclude this post with an answer, but as you can see from my own attempt at such a definition, I’ve got some work to do to.
Today I’m off to Richmond, VA for Ravencon. If I can get online to answer comments, I will do so. If not, I’ll respond by Monday at the latest. I’m sure my fellow MWers will keep the conversation going in the meantime. Have a great weekend!